True to Type / All Change (1994)

Exhibition review by David King

In design terms, the computer revolution in printing should have been a great leveller. With the aid of the PC and manual, anyone, anywhere should have been able to design anything, and at great speed. Except that they couldn’t. Design for printing more or less stopped having anything useful to offer with the decline of letterpress. Thereafter, style replaced design, even hijacking the word itself, and “content” disappeared altogether from Art School vocabulary. 

Since no one, to my knowledge, is making movable type any more, letterpress printing has been a kind of cul-de-sac. Everything in “True to Type” [Crafts Council Gallery] relies on using what already exists. The small presses and printers shown are keeping alive what had seemed a dead art. And it is a good thing they do. I like letterpress. I prefer it. I like the embedded nature of it, the patina, the mark the metal leaves on the paper. 

Letterpress printing has been around so long that it seemed almost impossible for anything new to be done with it. But small printers today have an advantage – they can make interesting things happen, liberating the medium again. Built in creative mistakes can inject new life onto the page. Ken Campbell is one artist/printer who takes full advantage of this. His work hovers between genius and thuggery. He pushes letterpress much further than most and his work shows great energy, connected as it is to an art-based rather than a craft-based approach to printing. Campbell even makes over-inking look good. 

Some of the students from Alan Kitching’s workshop are also interested in exploration. They are lucky to be associated with a skilful typographer/printer who prepares interesting graphic exercises for them. 

When it comes to skill, Michael Hardy’s superb calligraphy really stands out. See his stone-carved lettering on the stairs of the Sainsbury Wing of the National Gallery. It’s breathtakingly beautiful. 

Colin Banks’ instructive book on the great typographer of the London Underground, Edward Johnston, is a fine contribution to the exhibition, combining aesthetics with function, as did Johnson. 

One of the most interesting historical exhibits was the display of work by small German presses during the First World War, work which, remarkably, the Board of Trade promoted at the time. The high standard of illustration in these books must be a real eye-opener to anyone coming across them for the first time. 

Another cultural contrast to British letterpress work was provided by a concurrent show at the British Library, “All Change: Russian Avant-Garde Books, 1912–1934”. Whereas the Crafts Council’s exhibition displayed work using the highest quality paper and inks, printed on the finest presses, the artists, writers and poets of the revolutionary period made do with a minimum of equipment and materials. Working within the eye of the socialist storm, they produced dynamic new forms of design and illustration. All the Russian design heroes were on show, though not always with their best work. El Lissitzky, Rodchenko and Gustav Klutsis were ranged alongside a wealth of lesser known and anonymous artists who show how prolific this creative period was. 

Klutsis’ cover of Furnace is a masterpiece of bold typographic layout type used as verbal communication and illustration. Borisov’s triple overprinting of type is also worthy of mention. Like a typographical fugue, you have to pay attention to each individual layer as well as the whole. 

El Lissitzy’s Vkhutemas catalogue cover from the 1920s showed Lissitzky’s hand holding a pair of compasses on graph paper: Lissitzky the confident constructor. The type radiates from a letter “X” which is pivotal. Before the Russian avant-garde no design for print went on the diagonal. Dynamism was their major contribution. 

Strangely, and perhaps ironically, this exhibition of 20th-century avant-garde typography is situated not two metres from the first and finest example of design and printing in movable type in all history: The Gutenberg Bible. 

Originally published in Crafts no. 131, November/December 1994, p. 49